My son won first place in his division in the county science fair this year, and it caught us a bit by surprise that since he’s in middle school, that meant he was moving on to the state science fair. So here we are in LA, mom and son out on the town. Well, OK. Mom and son holed up in a hotel room working on a video project for school. But when we’re not holed up working, we’ve been partaking of a few of the wonderful offerings of LA: the Natural History Museum (excellent), the badly named ScienCenter (really cool except for the name), and great Mexican food.
Today was the opening ceremony for the science fair. The speaker, Dr. Gary Michelson, was someone I had no prior knowledge of, so I prepared for a snooze. But I found his talk engaging, funny, and wise. At one point he said that he’d gotten the advice that every speech you give should contain something you can’t find on Google, so his offering was a list of the most important aspects of being a scientist. If I publish this tonight, he’ll no longer be able to use this list! But it’s a good one, worth publishing:
1. Be ready to work with others, but willing to stand alone if you must.
2. Be disgruntled.
3. Be a dreamer.
4. Seek perfection.
5. Have great reverence for our home, this earth.
6. Live up to your gifts.
7. Aim high; aim to change the world.
8. Learn. Today’s knowledge is there for the taking, so take it.
10. Look for the extraordinary in the ordinary.
11. Everything is connected. Look for the connections.
12. Have a ready mind.
13. Be fearless. You cannot fear failure: As long as you have learned, you have not failed.
14. Dare to deconstruct in order to learn how to construct.
15. Question everything.
16. Think in diverse ways.
17. The walkabout: You don’t need a destination when you set out for a walk, and you don’t necessarily need one to do important work in science.
Dr. Michelson was yet another one of those successful people who says he wasn’t a very good student. People with a drive to create often seem not to be. Or rather: they are good students, but they’re good at it in their own way, which doesn’t always lead to good grades and awards.
I really appreciated what he said about what success is. I think this applies not just to science, but to many endeavors. He said that no successful inventor thinks of his failures as failures, because he learns from each one. And that learning leads to the ultimate success.
He also pointed out that success in science is, as Newton said, “Standing on the shoulders of giants.” Edison, he explained, was twentieth in a line of scientists who worked on lightbulbs. All of his work rested on the work that had been done before. We say that Edison invented the lightbulb, but human endeavors are a river, each one depending on those that came before.
That leads me to thinking about the history of the computer that my son and I read about and learned more about at the Computer History Museum. There were two men involved in the making of the computer who might be said to have failed: Charles Babbage created his Difference Engine on paper, but never saw it realized. John Atanasoff invented the binary computer that ENIAC was modeled on, yet seldom got credit for it in his lifetime. Both of them were important parts of the river of knowledge that has led to today, and that is a success that couldn’t have been measured in their lifetimes.
Kids doing a science fair may or may not see themselves as part of this river. But they are doing the preliminary wetting of toes that leads them to know whether they’d like to jump in. Whether my kids end up being scientists or artists, managers or makers, I think it’s a healthy thing to think of themselves as part of something bigger than their contribution.
Which gets me back to number 1: Be willing to stand alone. In these times, science is hardly a cool pursuit for a teen. But the audience was filled with teens willing to be part of a river that perhaps their friends have never even visited.
It was a privilege to watch them get their toes wet.